As we’ve been discussing next generation learning, it has become increasingly clear that every student needs a device. I’m not sure yet what the specifics of that device are. I know it needs to be network-connected. I know that it has to be portable. I think it should be a content creation device and not just a content consumption device. But beyond that, I’m not sure how much it matters.
Throughout this process, our thinking seems to be moving between a bring your own device (BYOD) program and a 1:1 program. BYOD implies that students bring the devices they already have — whatever they may be — to school and use them as part of the learning process. A 1:1 program is typically one in which the school provides a device for each learner. In most of these programs, the device is assigned to the student for a whole year (or multiple years). The student can take the device home, and it’s also used at school in most classes.
From an educational perspective, 1:1 is a lot easier than BYOD. I remember the early days of graphing calculators. Teachers asked the parents to buy graphing calculators for their high school math students. They couldn’t say “you must buy the TI-81.” They simply explained the features the calculator had to have, and the students brought in whatever tools they had. The results were good — the students learned how to use their devices, and most of the time everyone was able to accomplish the required tasks. But the road to success was pretty rocky. Teachers spent countless hours in class trying to troubleshoot problems with the various devices the students had. They would consult the manuals and the help systems and help the students try to figure out how their particular calculators did all of the functions they needed. It was a pretty steep learning curve.
The same can be said of BYOD programs. Some students will have iOS devices that can’t access web sites with Java or Flash. Others may have a phone or other small device that’s difficult to type on. Some students can watch videos. Some can create videos. Some have great e-readers that work with just about every format out there. Others can read some e-books but not others because of competing DRM and file format systems. Some students will have unfiltered access to the Internet through their mobile plans. Others will have to rely on wi-fi at school and home. Figuring out the various capabilities of the devices and trying to take advantage of the tools available without leaving a child behind will be a major challenge for the teacher in this type of environment.
A 1:1 program is a lot easier, because it gives the school a sense of control and the students a degree of standardization. If we give every sixth grader a netbook, for example, we can easily enumerate the things they can and cannot do with those devices. The teachers know what can be done. The tech support people can more easily identify and troubleshoot problems, and it’s much easier to make productive academic use of the devices. In short, a 1:1 program helps us stop focusing so much on the technology. Instead, we can concentrate on the learning.
But 1:1 programs are expensive. Some experts warn that the cost of purchasing the device is only half of the cost of the program, once you factor in the needs for technology infrastructure, tech support, professional development, and instructional support. In an age when we’re cutting staff, increasing class sizes, and constantly trying to stretch our education dollars, spending $200-500 per student per year on technology is probably unrealistic.
So we’re faced with the decision: do we try to go with 1:1 or do we use BYOD? I’ve been leaning toward both. Let’s plan for a 1:1 program. To do that, we’d be looking at a year of planning, and probably a 3-4 year implementation. If we pulled the trigger today on a 1:1 program, it would be the fall of 2016 before every student in grades 6-12 has a computer. Our current eighth graders will be seniors. Our second graders will be in middle school. That’s a long time. So, in the meantime, let’s do a BYOD program. Let the students bring the things they have. Do some work on the infrastructure to support a lot of technology. Increase the focus on professional development, and prepare teachers for the connected classroom. In addition to meeting the current students’ needs, it’ll help make the transition to a 1:1 program easier.
But there’s this little voice in the back of my head.
You’re doing it wrong.
Stop building the networked world. Use the network that’s already there.
Don’t bring your students to your learning network. Bring the learning to the students’ networks.
That’s a major paradigm shift. It ties back to the work I’ve been doing with Massive Open Online Courses. When we take an online course, we typically enroll in some kind of learning management system. We log into Blackboard or Moodle or whatever we’re using, and we interact with the course content there. We complete readings. We write reflections. We participate in discussions with our cohorts. In the good classes, we build a little learning network and we actually learn from one another.
Then the class ends. we lose our access to the learning management system. We lose the connections to the other participants in the class. We can’t get to our discussions or our reflections or any of the course content. Our time is up. The learning stops.
Instead of building this artificial learning environment, though, what if we used our existing personal learning networks? So instead of posting assignments in Moodle, the instructor posts them on a blog. Students interact through Twitter. They write their own reflections and respond to prompts using hash tags and their own blogs. Maybe it’s as simple as writing in Google Docs, sharing publicly, and tweeting out the link. (Stay with me, here, I’m about to drop an F-bomb). What if the course content were actually integrated with my Facebook feed? I go there every day already. So I see the photos of my cousin’s kids. I see that I’ve been challenged to a new Words With Friends game. I see the link to a news article that my wife posted on her wall. And I see a discussion about the online course. I see a post made by the teacher and comments from the students. Or a question raised by a student that sparked a discussion.
What happens when the course ends? Nothing. All of the stuff is still out there online. If I want to continue those connections I’ve made with my cohort, I don’t have to do anything. They’re still there. Learning can continue.
What if online learning for our students were like that? What if social networking and social learning were the same thing? That would be a lot more like “real life” wouldn’t it?
Back to devices. Shouldn’t our students — or at least their families — be making the decisions about what’s best for them? For all the complaining I do about Microsoft and Apple, I really couldn’t care less what people use. I mostly just don’t want them to tell me what I have to use. If they understand what the device will and will not do, and the merits and shortcomings of their decisions, who am I to tell them what to buy?
So, yes. 1:1. Every student needs a device. And let’s do BYOD while we’re working on getting to 1:1. And if we never actually get there, that wouldn’t necessarily be such a bad thing.
Photo credit: Ken Colwell on Flickr.